The little Welsh video games developer taking on the likes of Rockstar and EA on Playstation, XBox and Nintendo
Many of the biggest video game developers have become household names as the popularity of games for consoles and PC continues to grow.
Names like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Rockstar are among the most recognisable in the business’s “megapowers”, with just about everyone having heard of FIFA, Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto.
But smaller, independent game developers have enjoyed a boom period since gaming started turning digital, with downloadable games offering the opportunity to save production costs on discs, cartridges and packaging.
One of those companies which has carved out success is Wales Interactive.
Its games have appeared on the Nintendo Switch and Wii U, as well as PlayStation, Xbox, PC, Mac and mobile devices and it has more than one million downloads to their name.
The company was founded in 2012 and hit the ground running with three games – Gravity Badgers, Jack Vs Ninjas and Stride Files: The Square Murder – with the former releasing on consoles, as well as mobile devices.
A steady stream of games have followed, all of varying genres, including Soul Axiom, an adventure-puzzle game, Coffin Dodgers, a comedy kart-racer, and most recently Don’t Knock Twice, a first-person horror game.
Wales Interative, which is based in Pencoed, Bridgend, was founded in 2012 by David Banner and Richard Pring.
Ben Tester, from the company, said: “The first office was in the attic room of David’s house in the Rhondda Valley, but we now have a state-of-the-art games studio based at Sony UK Technology Park, with a team of 10 games industry professionals.”
“The original motivations for setting up the business were to create a significant games industry presence in Wales and to tap into the local graduate talent pool that we knew existed in the area,” Ben said.
“We not only planned to put Wales on the video games development map but create sustainable highly-skilled jobs in the games sector, which at that time, did not exist in this part of the UK.
“We have already achieved those goals and our studio has gone from strength to strength, continuing to develop and publish cutting-edge gaming titles that entertain the world.”
Life at Wales Interactive could appear particularly glamorous to those on the outside, especially considering some members of the team have recently returned from a game developers’ conference in San Francisco.
“We travel all around the world to the biggest and best gaming events and we are being recognised as ‘that Welsh game developer and publisher’, which is truly flattering knowing you’re representing your country in your industry,” Ben said.
“Our location has played a positive role in our success and has given us an identity internationally.
“Across the world, our titles have been downloaded in the millions and for every game that’s played brings the name, Wales Interactive, to every pair of eyes.
“We are always finding ways to reinforce the association our games have with Wales, including featuring support for the Welsh language, and this is proving to be a great success.
“Only recently, we had the opportunity to represent the country, along with other developers, on the first ever Welsh stand at GDC San Francisco – one of the biggest gaming conferences in the world.”
They even use local myths as inspiration.
“We have the opportunity to produce just about anything we want, from games featuring badgers in space to others featuring a ferocious-looking witch from Slavic folklore,” he said.
“Our design process can be influenced by the market trend and where we think it’s going, but at the end of the day we create the kind of games that we would want to play ourselves.
“We try not to focus on any one particular genre, and that’s the beauty of being an independent studio.
“The one thing that many of our games often have in common is that they all tell a story and this is where we tend to start our design process.
“We’re currently in production of a new story-rich horror game, which is inspired by a local ghost story right here in Bridgend.”
The company is a hark back to the past in that they have produced some FMV (Full Motion Video) games, which use pre-recorded video sometimes featuring actors rather than computer-generated visuals.
Ben said: “Something we hear a lot of in the games industry is that FMV games died in the ’90s because the tech wasn’t advanced enough to produce high-quality video that runs smoothly on a gaming platform.
“Production values were also painfully low and part of the reason the acting was just so bad. Flash-forward two decades and now we’re in a position where we can create cinematic interactive movies with high production values that run well on console.
“Since 2016 we released The Bunker and Late Shift which were the first and only FMV games to make it to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
“The two games are set to release on Nintendo Switch later this month, which will be a big boost to the popularity of the genre.
“Our hope is to be the driving force behind the rebirth of FMV and we have many more games already in the making — one unannounced title in partnership with a Welsh film studio.
“Any gamers reading who want to know what’s next in the FMV world, keep an eye out for our next multi-platform title The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker.”
Publishing a game isn’t a simple process of snapping one’s fingers, according to the studio – developing relationships with the companies behind the consoles is of paramount importance.
“We’re fortunate enough to have strong relationships with the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo but it’s been a long road and something we’ve worked hard for over the past six years,” Ben said.
“It’s easier these days for indie studios to self-publish on console, but back then you were often required to already have a catalogue of titles before you could publish new ones with them. It was somewhat of a catch-22 for many start-up studios.
“Our managing director, David Banner, is a veteran in the games industry with a number of successful titles to his name from his days at Eidos and Pivotal Games. We’ve published 24 titles since the birth of the company and our games label continues to grow with new, innovative games that entertain the world.”
But Ben said they could not become complacent.
“It’s a nice place to be in but we mustn’t get complacent if we are to continue to grow and establish ourselves as one of the leading indie game publishers in the UK.
“To publish on any console, it requires you have access to their specific development kits which are not available to the public.
“Each console has their own individual challenges, but the one that is a constant battle is the optimisation.
“Typically, consoles have different graphical and processing power from each other, so what looks great and runs well on one console may exceed the requirements of another.”
Company co-founder Dai Banner said the digital age of gaming was a big help to the company’s early success.
“It’s been a whirlwind for us since the company was founded in summer 2012.
“I’m from the Rhondda Valley, which was looked upon as a mining community. I loved where I was from, but the fact that I wanted to have my own video games company left me with very few options. Even when I started as a 21-year-old, that was my ambition.
“Rich is from Devon – though I met him through teaching as he was one of my students. I went to art college in Pontypridd, and I got invited back to do a guest lecture, which turned into a series of them, meeting Rich for an animation course. He comes from a programming background, and with mine in art, those are usually the two main components you need to make a video game.
“Being based in Wales works as a big plus for us. Over the last six years the company has been from a local talent pool. We’ve tapped into graduates to make high-quality games for all formats, and we’ve sold over two million games and counting.
“We’ve just had our third boxed game, Time Carnage, release for Playstation VR.
“We’ve gone from almost being a wannabe games developer to a company which others are following. Of the 24 titles we’ve released in six years, 18 were all in-house using our own intellectual properties.
“We’ve brought back the FMV (interactive movie game) genre, with Late Shift done alongside Swiss company CtrlMovie one of our latest. We’re looked upon internationally now as a company which has reinvented the genre.
“We haven’t just followed the other, bigger companies, we are in a position now where people are following us.
“We also love our work in VR, with Don’t Knock Twice and Time Carnage both games in that genre. It keeps us fresh, as at one point we’re working on VR, then partnering with movie makers to make games like The Bunker.
“We’ve just finished a hand-drawn RPG (role-playing game) with a Slovakian developer
“We have to be full of energy, as we’ve just put out our tenth PlayStation game (plus two on PSVR), while we also have ten Xbox games out and four on Switch, with another four on the way.
“Digital gaming changed the gatekeepers for us. It gave us a real opportunity to get our games published, and move into the position where we can now publish on our own.
“Though things can seem a lot harder, with a more crowded market and a lot more people making games, we’ve still managed to sell games in amongst the blockbusters from the huge companies.
“Even though we’re a Welsh company, we still sell our games around the world.
“We might not be a household name, but with that logo and the exposure of some of our games, people are starting to recognise us.”